Abstract Sexual selection has been implicated as having a role in promoting speciation, as it should increase the rate of evolution of reproductive isolation, and there is some comparative evidence that sexual selection may be related to imbalances in clade size seen in resolved phylogenies. By employing a new comparative method we are able to investigate the role of sexual selection in explaining the patterns of species richness across birds. We used data for testes size as an index of post-mating sexual selection, and sexual size dimorphism and sexual dichromatism as indices of pre-mating sexual selection. These measures were obtained for 1031 species representing 467 genera. None of the variables investigated explained the patterns of species richness. As sexual selection may also increase extinction rates, the net effect on species richness in any given clade will depend on the balancing effects of sexual selection upon speciation and extinction rates. We suggest that variance across clades in this balance may have resulted in the lack of a relationship between species richness and sexual selection seen in birds.